3 stars (out of 4)
“Let me tell you something. . .” says title star Leonardo DiCaprio at the start of J. Edgar, and there at once is the major strength and weakness of Clint Eastwood’s substantial new movie.
J. Edgar, penned by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, tells us many things, possibly too many, about the late J. Edgar Hoover, the secretive FBI director who probed America’s nether regions under eight presidents, from 1924-72.
Attentive both to rumour (the cross-dressing and the gay lover) and fact (the crime-busting and the empire building), the film almost overwhelms us with detail on this man/monster.
J. Edgar nevertheless succeeds in illuminating Hoover, despite the faded hues of Tom Stern’s desaturated colour cinematography and Eastwood’s austere direction and minimalist score. The spotlight is powered largely by the wattage of DiCaprio’s formidable performance.
Even under the heavy layers of latex and makeup required to convincingly transform his baby cheeks to Hoover’s bulldog jowls, DiCaprio wrings truth out of a cipher.
And how he’s grown: DiCaprio’s Hoover is so much more mature and convincing than his Howard Hughes of The Aviator.
The FBI boss is first seen in his Washington office, dictating his memoirs to one of a series of skeptical agents who have been seconded as involuntary typists.
It’s a framing technique employed by Eastwood and Black to efficiently span the decades from 1919, when a youthful Hoover was busting bomb-hurling American Bolsheviks, up to 1972, when he’s on his final case, which amounts to eluding Richard M. Nixon and his Oval Office thugs.
Far from the brooding figure of authority and menace he will grow to become, the younger Hoover is seen as a bumpkin, under the control of a frightfully attentive mother (the reliable Judi Dench).
“You will restore our family to greatness,” she tells him.
A librarian by training, Hoover’s idea of showing a girl a good time is to take her to the Library of Congress, to demonstrate his file-organizing skills.
It’s here that he makes an embarrassing grab for government typist Helen Gandy (a thoroughly deglammed Naomi Watts), who will resist his attempts at amour but accept his offer to be both his secretary and keeper of his secrets.
Hoover’s clumsiness turns canny by the time he meets his true love: the immaculately attired gentleman Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), whose height the shorter Hoover attempts to approximate by standing on a stealth platform behind his desk.
Tolson may be lacking in police credentials, but loyalty is what counts most to the perpetually suspicious, paranoid and self-aggrandizing Hoover, who tangles with both the high and the low.
Deep into J. Edgar, Hoover’s voice of authority begins to tremble. The historical record is questioned and rumour gains credence — Eastwood discreetly suggests how both the cross-dressing kinks and man-loving thrills may have been realized.
As our eyebrows rise along with those of the put-upon FBI typists, faithful Tolson delivers the unkindest cut of all. He accuses Hoover of putting his ego ahead of the interests of the country he’s sworn to serve.
It’s a fair cop, officer, but then as we see in J. Edgar, Hoover early on warned against naive credulity: “Trust no one, not even our fellow agents.”
Good advice for watching this wildly ambitious yet admirable undertaking, which leaves us with no tears, but also a bizarrely melodramatic coda about the power of love.
But with his essential performance, Leonardo DiCaprio gives us something to truly believe in.
Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.